Nature

See You in 100 Years

More than just a good story, which it surely is, Logan Ward’s See You in 100 Years (Author Planet Press, 2013) calls readers into a deep meditation of what we gain and what we lose through “progress.”

       Here’s the story: In the spring of 2001, Logan and Heather Ward quit their jobs, sold (or stored) everything they owned, and, with their 2-year-old son, Luther, moved from New York City to a farm, with a 116-year-old house, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

       More than that, they also “moved” back to 1900. That meant no cars, cell phones, or electric appliances, and no electricity, gas, or water service in the house. If it didn’t exist in 1900, they wouldn’t use it. They didn’t even accept rides in cars. If they could not get there by walking, bicycling, or by horse and buggy, they didn’t go. And they would live like that for one year.

       Part of the absorbing joy of this book is the way the reader must think through every detail of suddenly leaping backwards a full century; the long hours of hard work required just to remain alive, learning to work with some animals and kill others, living without weather forecasts or news, discovering the new patterns of farm life, and the knowledge that you cannot call anyone in case of emergencies.

       No wonder 1900’s life expectancy was 47 years for men and 49 for women.  

The Stamp of Time and Place

See You in 100 Years also reveals the way times and places mold people. So, we see good, liberal, non-religious, and artistic people quickly conform to traditional husband and wife roles. Ward admits that Heather fell into “the stereotypical chore load of the female… cooking, cleaning, laundry,” while he took care of “wood-splitting, water-pumping, livestock care.” He explains, “We do the jobs we’re inclined to do and that will be more efficient…with chores filling our days from dawn to dark, efficiency counts for a lot.”

       Well, maybe it always has! 

       And, then there is rain. As one who grew up in farm country, I understand why farming communities are inevitably religious. It all comes down to this: We must have rain and we can’t make it happen. Who you gonna call?

       During their sweltering, parched summer, the Logan family runs right into an ancient pattern; a black cloud covers the farm, the wind increases, the air cools, and a few big raindrops hit the dust, and then…nothing but the blazing sun. Over and over for weeks. He says it well, “For the first time ever, I understand the desperation that could drive people to dance for rain.”

       But, then…the rain arrives! “Heather breaks into sobs. I hug her and cry, too. Letting go is easy in the deluge.”

A Time of Testing 

Moving backward 100 years would inevitably become a crucible of testing. Sometimes excruciating, the tests measure every aspect of life: physical, mental, marital, financial, and communal.

       I’m sure it was unintentional, but the pace and intensity of bad language seems to serve as a thermometer for the heat of the testing. Ward and Heather’s profanities increase until they break. From that point, their language becomes clean and gentle.

       Perhaps the biggest test was 9/11/01, as these transplanted New Yorkers had no knowledge of the terrorist attacks of that day until neighbors began coming to their door. Logan admits the enormity of the attack made their experiment seem small and maybe silly. Neighbors invited them to their homes to use their phones and TVs.

       The way they work through their relationship to 911 (and the modern news business) throws a big yard light on modern life. Their choice is not a stunt, but a plumbline of sanity.

       Finally, as life on the land knocks them face down in the dirt, they come up grateful for every tomato, egg, cucumber, pint of goat’s milk, or drop of rain. Near the end of the book, Logan tells us, “I can’t contain my feelings of gratitude. For the first time since my boyhood, I offer silent prayers of thanks…”

       Obviously, I loved and do highly recommend this penetrating, moving, and funny book. It immersed me in another world and time, frequently pulled me out of bed or office, and threw me into sadness when it ended.

       As with many good books, I wanted to remain with those people and in that place a few pages and years longer.

Things Too Wonderful for Me

What do you see when you gaze into the rotting carcass of an animal? Something deeply revolting? Or do you see an ecosystem being sustained? Most people know those nasty necessities—worms, maggots, feces, viruses, roadkill—play essential and exquisite roles in sustaining our environment. But we still look or run away.

Of course, our recoil is instinctive. But it also reveals that the typical person’s view of life on earth may be absurdly immaculate and pitifully immature.

I think that may also describe our view of leadership. Having worked with many leaders, across several decades and a wide spectrum of fields, I’ve seen it over and over. Leaders just tend to be odd; inconsistent, irrational, unsettling. They often seem to dance to music no one else can hear.

But, history has a way of managing leadership eccentricity, a way that is often long, messy, and completely unacceptable to the pious, the impatient, and those who need to control things beyond their own jurisdiction or influence.

That’s probably why our “absurdly immaculate and pitifully immature” culture encourages the mocking or wrecking of what it doesn’t understand. Let’s face it; we created a monster when we invited pop culture to define fitness or candidates for leadership. The more we do that, the more we damage it…and our society.

Higher Ground

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. But, whether I voted for him, like him, respect him—or not—I walk in a mission that leaves no room for speculation about him (or anyone else). Aside from praying for “all who are in authority,” (1 Timothy 2:2), I rarely think about the man. My life purpose demands my full attention. I have to keep my eye on the ball, regardless of who occupies leadership positions.

That’s why the hysterical fixation (positive and negative) with Trump is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Look; we have elections; they produce change, incremental or cataclysmic. That’s called “process.” It works. So, to spend my time contemplating Trump’s fitness for (or the possibilities of removing him from) the presidency would indulge the most boring depths of silliness. Worse, it would admit that I have no purpose, no self-respect, no job, and no lawn to mow.

Many biblical passages proclaim the very high-altitude view that God reigns over all and that He chooses earthly rulers according to His will. One of those scriptures seems aimed at this age of Trump, telling us that God “…rules over the kingdoms of the world. He gives them to anyone he chooses—even to the lowliest of people.”[1]

Just as the Creator loves the ecological wonders of the putrid carcass and the magic of maggots, maybe He also chooses leaders according to His criteria, not ours. Do you think His ways really might surpass ours? Could be; that may be why there’s no biblical record of Him ever seeking human opinions of His processes, ecological or governmental.

Good grief, He’s the One Who appointed David as king. You know, David, one of history’s greatest leaders. And, the same guy that killed 200 Philistines, then circumcised them and presented the bloody remains to King Saul as part of his application to be Saul’s son-in-law. And some think Trump is creepy.

Could This Be the Time for Humility?

Robert Farrar Capon reminds his pure-minded readers that when the Bible speaks of seed falling into the soil, it does not mean religious or sanctified soil; it is foul and disgusting. Dirt is, well…dirty. In fact, Capon notes, some seeds first pass through birds and are then defecated onto the soil.[2]

The Psalmist wrote, “My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”[3] Have you ever heard someone try to command a conversation with no knowledge of the topic? Do you think that may also describe human comprehension of the micro world’s pathogens and parasites? Or, the majestic sweep of galaxies and light years?

If so, maybe the world of leadership is also too inscrutably wonderful for us. Maybe we should just walk away from the mob and return to our families, farms, businesses, and villages to take on the jobs that do fit our capacities.

[1] Daniel 4:17 taken from Tyndale House Publishers. 2004. Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers.

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985

[3] Psalm 131:1 taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984.

 

Up There

The sun is 400 times larger than the moon. Yet, in a solar eclipse, the moon blocks the light of the sun (like hiding the moon with your thumb). Furthermore, that eclipse only darkens a 70-mile-wide strip of earth (which, on August 21, was only across America). And just for a couple minutes.

So, why was it so important for me to travel 120 miles roundtrip for those two minutes?

Probably boredom. Not marital or mental, but weariness with the age. Let’s face it; we have long passed the point when anyone on the big stages can encourage, galvanize, inspire, or lift us. The best and the brightest are sometimes not very good and not very smart. They just talk a lot.

I’m not angered by the noise, just tired of it. This age is so mildewed, dull, dusty, claustrophobic. We seem exhausted; intellectually, culturally, and spiritually.

Love in the Afternoon

That’s why, in the early afternoon of August 21, Joanne and I (and our daughter Amy and her family) joined a diverse collection of 100 or more citizens in Woodbury, Tennessee’s Brown Spurlock Park. Children played, families ate together, and strangers engaged others in open and friendly conversations. Some fiddled around with colanders or boxes, trying to project the image onto white paper. Amateur photographers prepared for the shot that would make the cover of National Geographic. But, as totality approached, the chatter slowly hushed.

Everyone looked up.

Casey Chinn Photography

Then the atmosphere darkened, streetlights began to glow, birds stopped singing, and the temperature dropped. In that muffled moment, every face turned heavenward. I saw grins, and I saw wet faces. No one spoke. We were all gripped by a majestic display in the heavens.

That moment was as pure as any I can remember.

As we drove home, I wondered; what if…that same group of people had gathered in that same spot for any other reason – perhaps a concert, protest rally, political campaign, worship service, or company picnic? Would any of those gatherings have produced such speechless-and-spellbound concentration? Could any other event evoke such a sense of love and natural community among strangers?

No.

Only a convergence around something so gripping, so out of this world, so “up there,” would command such awe.

It seemed to me that the celestial phenomenon pulled all of us to attention. In that hallowed state, we all watched as the sun just went out, died, in the middle of the day.

And then the brilliance of sunlight, a diamond solitaire, peeked around the edge of the moon, a blinding, burning flash of pure light. And it just kept expanding and blazing into our space.

Up

A couple days later, as I continued processing the eclipse, I thought about the movie Cast Away. That story of an American businessman, played by Tom Hanks, stranded on a small island in the middle of the Pacific, has long struck me as one of the most dishonest movies I’ve ever seen. Hanks’ character found “salvation” totally within himself. He never, not once, not in four years, prayed, or even looked up. In the midst of infinite sea and sky, he found connection with…a volleyball? Please.

I don’t care if he was a raging atheist who poisoned puppies; a human could not spend four years alone, worried about sanity and survival, without ever searching the night sky and groaning, “Oh, God, help.”

But then I thought, maybe the movie was a heart’s cry, an artistic wail of lament over feeling adrift, “cast away,” from the Presence. Could that be a communal entreaty? Are we seeking release from our “total eclipse of the heart?”

If so, maybe the eclipse was – like a rainbow – a sign of an enduring truth: Look up here. Turn away from the screens, the noise, the glitter, the conflict. As you walk through the earth, keep looking through, up, around, and beyond the visible. No need to react to the tired or silly voices. Reject cynicism. Just keep walking, looking, and listening; live joyfully, expectantly, and straight ahead within that state the prophet Isaiah so beautifully described:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”[1]

[1] Isaiah 60:1, taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

 

The Hidden Life of Trees

I think the Apostle Paul gave a good basis for science when he wrote: “By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being…” (Romans 1:20, The Message)

True science reveals hidden mysteries for those who have eyes to see.

And that brings me to an astounding new book, The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, 2016). Although I’ve always seen trees as “living things,” I had no idea of the sophistication or vigor of their life. Now I will never be able to see a tree or a forest the same way again. This book is a revelation; you see a design for health and wellness at, both, a tree and a forest perspective.

That pattern is deeply relevant to humans and society.

Wohlleben has methodically observed (and clearly explains) the intricate nature of trees and forests. To my great surprise, I learned that trees feel pain (even emitting ultrasonic “screams”), have some capacity for sight, require daily and seasonal periods of rest, possess memory, communicate with other trees, defend themselves when attacked, care for their young, build friendships with other trees, pass wisdom down to the next generation, fight to survive, and extend respect to the other members of their community.

They also ride bicycles and surfboards. Just kidding.

Wohlleben is a very visual writer. You see the patterns of plant and animal life – such as elk, wolf, beaver, aspen, willow and cottonwood populations in Yellowstone National Park – expanding and contracting over decades, almost as though dancing together. His skillful writing helps us to see electrical impulses racing up and down tree trunks, fungi burrowing through the subterranean soil in support of trees, and flirtatious tree scents swelling on the wind.

The Web of Wellness

His visual and detailed perspective of trees and forests reveals a very complex web of wellness. That view of soil, water, fungi, birds, animals, disease, and other trees is just breathtaking. In fact, he gave me a new appreciation, even a sense of awe, of the interconnectedness of all life on earth. And, of course, that brings us to the relationship between trees and humans.

So often, when humans have imposed decisions on forests and other natural resources, they set off chains of disastrous repercussions. For example, he describes what happens to trees planted in cities. By sharing space with water lines, buried cable, and other subsurface objects and systems, and because the ground becomes so trafficked and hardened, city trees are just not as healthy as trees in the wild. They often die young.

Studies have also revealed the illness or death of trees because they were subjected to too much city light. “…at some point, lack of sleep exerted its revenge and the plants, which had seemed so full of life, died.” Yet, Wohlleben is practical and dispassionate about humans. He writes:

“…we use living things killed for our purposes. Does that make our behavior reprehensible? Not necessarily. After all, we are also part of Nature, and we are made in such a way that we can survive only with the help of organic substances from other species. We share this necessity with all other animals.”

Purifying Our Environment

Although unintentional, the book also suggests the Creator’s majestic administration of the planet. You see the cycles of life almost as tides, receding and then rising and rolling back in. Or you see them as starling murmurations… appearing, disappearing, pulsating, morphing. With all due respect for other views, I don’t know how anyone could read this book without seeing a Creator.

I often thought of Thomas Merton while reading The Hidden Life of Trees. In one of the best lines I read this year, he spoke of monks (could be anyone) as “trees that exist in obscure silence, but by their presence purify the air.”

Think of it; they purify the environment. Just by being there.

Could there be a message in this for us…is it possible that we – individuals and society – can be as healthy and as beneficial to our environment as trees are to theirs?

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